Why the smaller firms have had a great year in Germany
17 November 2003
The federal nature of the German legal market has meant rich opportunities for firms wanting to colonise local centres. The financial and industrial heartland of Germany, from Düsseldorf down to Frankfurt via Cologne, has occupied the attentions of many UK-based practices. But the best-performing firms in these three key centres may come as a surprise: Bird & Bird, Osborne Clarke and Schiedermair Rechtsanwälte, the spin-off from Linklaters Oppenhoff & Rädler.
In Cologne, Osborne Clarke's young team, which spun off from Graf von Westphalen Bappert & Modest two years ago, had a simple recipe for success as it set out to conquer the difficult Cologne legal market.
The strong international connections have been provided by the firm's burgeoning European network, but the emphasis on improving the German office's contacts within the local economy has been palpable.
There was considerable scepticism in the Cologne market as to whether the newly-established firm would succeed in carrying over the reputation and client base from Graf von Westphalen (which was, after all, one of Cologne's best-known firms) to the new team. But the down-to-earth atmosphere at the firm reflects the Osborne Clarke business model and has come to be a major selling point in recruitment, particularly for younger partners. It has been reflected in the success of the office in strengthening its practice to a total of 30 to date.
According to research by the Juve Handbook, the firm was praised by clients as having a "pragmatic and businesslike" attitude to work. Highlights of the past year included advising United Transport on the sale of its container division, Electronic Arts on a licensing dispute against German national goalkeeper Oliver Kahn, and the inevitably much-envied ongoing work for supermodel Heidi Klum. The firm also advises on employment matters for Imperial Tobacco and the Malzmühle brewery.
The role of Stefan Rizor is a crucial factor for the firm's future development (especially after the loss of the small Frankfurt office to Taylor Wessing), and his "nose for management" has been remarked upon by one major competitor in Cologne.
Although the firm still undeniably has a long way to go before it can be regarded as a major player, Osborne Clarke in Cologne is well on its way to adding a breath of fresh air to the city's Mittelstand business.
One of Osborne Clarke's great tech competitiors, Bird & Bird, is doing just as well down the road in Düsseldorf. After the founding of the practice a year ago, Bird & Bird has made rapid progress in its first German office.
Faced with the impending break-up of the Andersen Luther firm following the Enron scandal, four members of the former Wessing group - Wolfgang von Meibom, Professor Klaus-Jürgen Michaeli, Dr Alexander Schröder-Frerkes and Dr Jan Byok - struck out on their own to set up the Düsseldorf office for Bird & Bird with a total of 18 lawyers. Now, one year on, the team is not only backed by a strong office in Brussels, it has been blessed by the success in its spec- ialist fields - intellectual property (IP)/IT, corporate and regulatory law.
Lateral hiring has been strong and consistent: Bird & Bird has not only increased its number of lawyers to 32 within a year, but has also strengthened its practice in several fields, such as media, sport and employment. In the IP field in particular, several attractive clients were gained in the form of Aventis, Bayer and Exxon. Other IP work included: TUI on the introduction of the Hapag-Lloyd Express trademark; the Confederation of German Savings Banks on strategic instructions and arbitration; and Diageo on litigation concerning Gordon's Dry Gin trademark.
The challenge for the firm as a whole in Germany remains corporate. Schröder- Frerkes is well known in Düsseldorf and was involved in some major deals over the past year (eg Lufthansa Cargo on the sale of DHL shares to Deutsche Post and OASE on the sale of the group to Electra Partners Europe), but as yet he is the only established partner.
The laterals taken on by Bird & Bird demonstrate, however, that the partners' connections with industry can encourage notable names to move to private practice: Joseph Fesenmair joined the firm from Deutsche Telecom and Martin Nebeling came from Allkauf/Metro.
Meanwhile, in Germany's financial capital Frankfurt, it is not the international firms that have made the most spectacular progress this year, but a spin-off from Linklaters, Schiedermair Rechtsanwälte.
The proof that those lawyers who left Linklaters Oppenhoff & Rädler almost three years ago have also been blossoming is provided by the Frankfurt firm Schiedermair. Few spin-offs from major firms have benefited from such a well-thought-out strategy, demonstrating that those senior lawyers who left Linklaters were themselves good businessmen (no one ever doubted their ability as lawyers).
Right from the beginning, the partners of Schiedermair wanted to focus on their traditional practice strengths: advice to family-owned Mittelstand trusts and private clients.
As such, it fits easily into the traditional picture of a German law firm, but the difference can be found in the unanimity of view among the partnership. This has attracted other Frankfurt lawyers to the fold. At the beginning of this year, real estate lawyer Wolfgang Karehnke (formerly at Pünder) filled a gap in Schiedermair's advice to the local Frankfurt market.
No doubt due to the age of the senior lawyers (name partner Schiedermair, a highly-regarded corporate lawyer, is over 70; Wolfgang Matschke, one of Frankfurt's leading trusts and private client lawyers, is 65) there is inevitably speculation about the long-term future of the firm. This is clearly misplaced. The other partners range between their 30s and 50s, which allows homogenous and gradual growth. Most enterprising (and not a tad ironic) is the firm's policy of emphasising experience and training at a large firm for any potential younger laterals.